Enlighten Me: Some Delaware educators ‘fidget’ over new fad, others embrace it
If you’re a parent or a teacher, you are probably very aware of the latest fad – fidget spinners.
Haven’t heard of them? Well, they are a small gadget you can spin between two fingers – then try to balance them on one finger or do other tricks. As they spin, you can hear a faint whirring noise.
They have grown in popularity at a dizzying rate, catching Delaware schools a bit flat-footed in deciding how to handle them. And complicating the issue was the claim by companies producing them that they are more than toys – that they are a therapeutic tool that can help kids with attention problems.
It started with just one or two. Soon, there were 10… 20. Then, a faint whirring noise seemed to be heard all over elementary schools across the First State.
Some teachers say fidget spinners seemed to pop up in their classrooms in March or April, but they exploded in May. If one student saw a friend had one, they had to have one too.
“I like doing tricks with them and how fast they spin,” said Ahmad Smith, a fifth grader at Southern Elementary in New Castle. “Like you can spin it on your nose, or your finger, sometimes your shoe. It depends on how creative you are.”
Smith has had a plain, black fidget spinner since April. But shortly after he bought it, he couldn’t bring it to school anymore.
A few weeks ago, Southern Elementary Principal Jeff Gibeault sent out a video announcement to parents asking that fidget spinners be left at home.
"So students, if you’d like to have a spinner or you own a spinner, very cool toys to play with, but play with them at home,” Gibeault said. “So you can imagine how they are starting to distract our classrooms, simply if you are sitting next to somebody who is spinning this and bouncing it on their finger and dropping it on their desk. It’s very difficult to learn when that’s happening next to you, and very difficult to teach when your students are doing that.”
Gibeault said he was trying to be proactive and deal with the spinners before they became a bigger issue.
“So I didn’t see a whole lot of students walking and spinning them on their fingers. But I did see them start to seep out of the recess time and into the cafeteria, or I would come into classrooms and I would see them sitting on the desk,” Gibeault said.
Gibeault’s decision disappointed Ahmad Smith. But Smith said he understood why teachers wouldn’t want them in the classroom.
"I wouldn’t say I was angry but I was pretty upset that I couldn’t play with it during class. But I do know that it would really distract [my teacher] if people would drop it on the floor, drop it on the desk - make a big sound and hard for other people to learn that don’t have any,” Smith said.
Educators at Middletown’s Bunker Hill Elementary weren’t too thrilled with the spinners either. Principal Edmund Gurdo also made a school-wide announcement for students to leave them at home.
"In the classroom we need tools for them to be successful, not toys." -Holly Schwalbe, third grade teacher at Bunker Hill Elementary.
“If there are things that are distracting kids from their learning, that’s something we have to address,” Gurdo said.
But the decision to ban spinners was a bit more complicated than exiling other toys and games that find their way to school. Fidget spinners have been marketed as a tool to help calm people with ADHD or anxiety. Schools allow tools that calm kids down in the classroom - like a stress ball for example, if it's defined by a therapist as a tool that can help a student focus.
At Bunker Hill, third grade special education teacher Holly Schwalbe has a basket of stressballs she passes out to her students every day, if they need one. Schwalbe said the explosion in the spinners’ popularity created a dilemma — could they still be deemed a fidget tool?
“The fidget spinner has become such a fad and such a popular toy that it’s replaced it as a tool, and in the classroom we need tools for them to be successful, not toys,” Schwalbe said.
Other schools like Phillip C. Showell Elementary in Selbyville also treated spinners as a toy, but instead of banning them, they sought a middle ground. Students there could have them at recess, but not in the classroom.
Principal Karen Claussen said fidget spinners were not yet enough of a problem towards the end of the year to ask students to leave them at home.
“It’s recess time,” Claussen said. “If the other students are distracted by the fidget spinner, that’s okay. It’s not gonna cause any instructional distraction for the students as well. So at that point in time. As long as it’s not creating a discipline issue during recess, I don’t have any problem with them using them during recess time.”
But at Mt. Pleasant Elementary in North Wilmington, one teacher was not only willing to keep spinners in her classroom - she found educational value in them.
Fourth grade teacher Jackie Chesworth said one of her students suggested making them with a 3D printer after seeing her cousin do it.
Chesworth and her class turned it into a project, selling the spinners they made to raise money for students who couldn’t pay for field trips. In the process, they researched spinners, their various designs and their purpose — to help make and market their product.
During a visit to Chesworth’s class, three of her students were assembling the fidget spinners they made with 3D printers.
“I only have a handful of kids that even take them out anymore. I think because they get to use them so much, they put them together, they design them, and they realize the purpose of it, they’re not as interested in using them themselves in the classroom setting if they don’t need it,” Chesworth said.
But she still has rules about using spinners in her class. They can stay - if used appropriately.
“When kids are using it to focus, they’ll have it in their pockets, or they’ll be reading and you can see them using it in the other hand,” Chesworth said. “Then when kids are using it just to play, they’ll try to balance it on their nose or pass it to somebody without it dropping. And that’s when it goes on my desk and they just pick it up at the end of the day.”
Isabelle Salvatore, one of Chesworth’s students, said she thinks those rules are fair.
“Quiet time - we can take it out and just spin it all we want, but we can’t make that loud of a noise really with it, and that’s how most of the kids get caught with their fidget spinners. There’s been like five fidget spinners taken away. Ms. Chesworth is selling one of them I think…” Salvatore said.
Chesworth said being able to use the popularity of fidget spinners for a project that completely engaged her students was a “dream scenario.”
How well did it work? Consider what Breanna McGee — the student whose idea got the project rolling — said when she was asked: “what’s more fun? Playing with a fidget spinner, or making one?”
“Making a fidget spinner,” McGee said. “Because after, you get to play with it as well.”
As schools let out for the summer across the First State, students can spend as much time playing with their spinners as they please. Meanwhile, teachers get a break from the whirring noise that has sparked debate in schools across the country.
Who knows? Unlike summer vacation, that break could be permanent. Like others fads that seemed to disappear as quickly as they arrived, fidget spinners could join the ranks of Beanie Babies and Silly Bandz by fall.
“With my experience with trends, both as a kid and as a dad and as an educator, this is probably going to be somewhat short-lived,” said Principal Jeff Gibeault of Southern Elementary.
But Gibeault said he suspects it's not the last issue like this schools will face.
“And I think the life of this will be ‘what will the next trend be?’ and ‘what will the next trend be that’s easy to bring to school?’” he said.
Or maybe that whirring noise will have a longer lifespan than expected.
Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne contributed to this story.